The Myth of a Christian Nation: Chapter 1

May 30, 2007

Chapter 1 in The Myth of a Christian Nation is entitled “The Kingdom of the Sword.” In this chapter, Boyd points out that nation-states may serve God’s purposes from time-to-time, and that we are encouraged to be good citizens of the nations in which we find ourselves. However, he also reminds us that nation states, which depend on force and violence to impose their will on their citizens and on other nation-states, are ultimately evil in nature. And, yes, such this truth applies even, maybe even especially (it seems to me), to our own nation, which enjoys unprecedented power on the stage of world history.

Boyd does not go quite so far as to call all governments “Satanic.” However, true to his conservative evangelical roots, Boyd is not afraid to bring a strong sense of spiritual warfare and even demonology to the table. He points out that the New Testament writers consistently characterize governments as being tools of Satan, and that Satan himself is called the “ruler” of the world, a term that refers to political authority. Indeed, when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, Satan claims that the authority of all of the kingdoms of the world has been given to him.

This rather dark view of government, while juxtaposed somewhat awkwardly with other calls to be good citizens who “honor” our leaders, means – at a minimum that “we can never assume that any particular nation – including our own – is always, or even usually, aligned with God.” Instead, we must remember that fallen principalities and powers strongly influence all governments, regardless of whether they seem relatively “good” compared to others.

At the heart of the problem, argues Boyd, is a “tit-for-tat” use of violence that has always been characteristic of national rivalries. Everyone likes their belief system, their government, their homeland, even their religious systems – and violence erupts when people try to defend the things they claim as their own. This leads to an endless cycle of “vengeance” in which each party claims they are evening out a score that the other started. 

This, Boyd points out, is not the way of Jesus. “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them,” Jesus said to his followers, “but not so with you.”

Up next: Boyd contrasts the kingdom of the sword with the “kingdom of the cross.”

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The Myth of a Christian Nation: An Introduction

May 28, 2007

 This post begins a series on Greg Boyd’s book The Myth of a Christian Nation.

The thesis of the book is something that many of us don’t want to hear, but which we despirately need to hear: many American Christians are guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry. Our understanding of God’s kingdom, he says, has become polluted with political ideas, agendas, and issues. More specifically, he will tell us, we need to let go of a foundational myth that America is a Chrisitan nation. When we align our theology with our political ideology, believing that “God is on our side” in our country’s conflicts and policy decisions, we have sold out God’s true kingdom, which trasncends national self-interest and political borders, and which does not seek to use force to impose its way on others.

Boyd is not the sort-of person that you would expect to generate a book of this nature. He is not an emergent writer, nor is he a traditional theological liberal from a mainline protestant church. He is not a Jim Wallis-esque political activist. He is a relatively conservative evangelical minister, who takes great care to tie his theses into scripture in the traditional, evangelical style.

I will be blogging along as I read the book, so I haven’t finished it yet. But everything I have read so far is well worth considering.

How (Not) to Speak of God: Some Concluding Thoughts

May 25, 2007

Rollins’ book concludes with several examples of contemporary worship services that have been conducted in his faith community. While they look intriguing, I have only skimmed through one or two of those at this point, so I’m not going to say anything about them.

I do, however, want to make a few semi-random observations to wind down this series of posts:

1. A Plea for Patience. Right now, I can picture a few of you who have been reading all of this thinking to yourselves that it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. To you, I apologize, and I only ask that you be patient with people like me. There seems to be a very clear split in the way people react to this book. Some find it thoroughly nonsensical and confusing, and some find it extremely helpful. I hope you can be gracious with those such as myself who have responded favorably to the book, and just take it on our word that – for some of us – it has been spiritually nourishing, and faith-enriching.

2. A New (Old) Language for Christianity. I am convinced that, if the Emergent conversation is going anywhere, it is toward a place where it will ask the Church to do some hard re-thinking about what “truth” is all about. Rollins has given us a language by which we can have that conversation, and he has also shown us how this way of thinking is nothing new – there is an ancient, tested Christian tradition (Christian mysticism) that can inform our conversations about truth.

3. Re-Envisioning Our Purpose. What should Christianity ultimately be about? Words (orthodoxy) or love (orthopraxy)? Modern evangelicals will tell you that it is both, but in impletmentation its mostly about getting the orthodoxy right. One of the helpful things that Rollins is telling us is that, rather than an end unto itself, we need to see orthodoxy only as a way of enhancing/enriching our expression of God’s love.

4. Evangelism. If, as Rollins argues, an encounter with Truth means someone comes face-to-face with God, then we need to approach evangelism in a radically different way. Rather than trying to beat someone over the head with a bible, trying to convince them of the “correct” propositions about God, Jesus, etc., we need to be finding ways to foster in them their own desire/love for God. We need to be expressions of that love. We are nurturers of God’s love, first. Possibly, later, teachers – but only to those who are ready to hear.

5. Teaching/Worship. Rollins’ ideas also draw us away from the idea that teaching is the central event of worship. Rather than “telling us about” God, worship should be an event that draws us into an encounter with God. Good teaching can do that, to be sure. But art, music, poetry, silence, reflection are also important tools in that process.

Previous Posts:
1. Introduction
2. The meaning of heretical orthodoxy
3. Chapter 1: God Rid me of God
4. Chapter 2: The Aftermath of Theology
5. Chapter 3: A/theology as Icon
6. Chapter 4: Inhabiting the God-Shaped Hole
7. Chapter 5: The Third Mile

How (Not) to Speak of God: The Third Mile

May 24, 2007

In Chapter 5 of How (Not) to Speak of God, Rollins simultaneously deals with the objections to the concept of a/theology while pointing out how such an approach actually allows us to move forward, rather than backward in our spiritual journey.

This chapter is packed full of ideas. I thought about splitting them into several posts. But in the end, I decided it was better to do it at once, so that the interrelationship between Rollins’ ideas would be clearer.

Rollins begins by pointing out that Christians think of “truth” in a way that is entirely different than the way the modern (and ancient Greek) world view truth. For the modern and ancient Greek worlds, “truth” has to do with what is Real: “the underlying substance of the universe, the nature of logic and so forth.”

But for the Christian, truth is much different.  Truth is an experience that we have when we encounter God. Thus, Truth is something with which we come face-to-face, rather than with some “correct” verbal description of the way things are.

So how do we know we have had an authentic experience of God/Truth. Here, Rollins borrows form the Epistle of John:

Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, becuase God is love…No-one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made ocmplete in us…God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.

Can you hear echos of the themes from Rollins’ prior chapters in this? You can’t “see” God – you can’t capture him in words or pictures. Instead, you experience God, and in that experience of God, you learn to take on His nature. The ultimate test of authenticity for our faith, then, is not whether we understand things “correctly” but whether our lives reflect this encounter with Truth.

To paraphrase: Truth grabs us, shakes us, saves us, transforms us. It is neither ink on a page, nor words in a mouth, nor (per se) thoughts in our minds.

So what should we say, then, about ethical systems? They are useful, to be sure, but they can never become an excuse to avoid the difficult struggle of moral reasoning. Every system, every biblical text, every theological work, must be read with extreme prejudice – he argues – a prejudice of love. Indeed, he says, people can interpret a text or a situation in more than one way, so long as both are doing so with a prejudice of love.

Rollins invites us to think of it this way: Jesus told his followers to “go the second mile” when they were required to carry Roman soliders’ packs. Does this mean, then that the “second mile” is all that is required? Is a third mile required? Can we put together a rigid, ethical system that says the limit of our service to others is simply a little further out than it was before? Of course not, argues Rollins, becuase Jesus wasn’t creating an ethical rule. Instead, he was modeling a system by which ethical obligations are interpreted through the lens of a prejudice of love.

And it is at this point that – in my view – Rollins quite effectively rebuts the critics of a mystical, a/theological approach to Christianity. To those who his approach allows anyone willy-nilly to make anything they want out of the biblical text, he points out that the fact that there may be multiple interpretations of a text (“transfinite” readings), infinite readings are not possible, because any reading that does not come from a prejudice of love is not True.

Is Rollins, then, arguing for works-based salvation – asserting that the only way to be saved is to love? Not really, he points out, because “as soon as love works in order to receive something, it is not love.” We can only truly love, he points out, when we lose our awareness that we are even doing it, “[f]or a love that is born of God is a love that gives with the same reflex as that which causes a bird to sing or the heart to beat.” We cannot simply force this radical, Christ-like love.

Our challenge, then, is to learn to let go of ourselves. We must undergo an ego-death, and in that death the divine has a place in which it can enter in and lay itself down. Our hope is that, in so doing, love will flow through us.

Up next: a few concluding reflections.

Previous Posts:
1. Introduction
2. The meaning of heretical orthodoxy
3. Chapter 1: God Rid me of God
4. Chapter 2: The Aftermath of Theology
5. Chapter 3: A/theology as Icon
6. Chapter 4: Inhabiting the God-Shaped Hole

…Because You Don’t Have Enough Gadgets on your Vista Sidebar Just Yet

May 23, 2007


Unveil Unveiled

May 21, 2007

Unveil, Jeff Deyo’s new worship album, releases on Tuesday, May 22. I have been a huge admirer of Deyo’s worship music ever since his days with the old-school SONICFLOOd many, many years ago. And it won’t come as a surprise to those who know me well that I was eager to place a pre-order on Unveil so I could get access to pre-release mp3s of the album.

Over the years, Deyo has been one of the few modern worship artists who has been willing to truly pull out the plug when it comes to unapologetically integrating a full, driving modern rock sound into worship music. That sound, together with Deyo’s passionate lyrics, have resulted in Deyo’s previous albums having a near permanent presence in my car’s CD player.

Deyo’s latest effort reflects a new level of maturity in two ways. First, while Deyo has never written music with the lyrical sophistication of – say – a Jason Morant (which is okay – simple, passionate lyrics work well in his music), this album definitely has a few thought-provoking moments. Here are a couple of my favorite lyrical moments, from the slow-building ballad entitled Glory:

Creation groans for that great day/when heaven and earth collide

With praise we walk against the night/this battle we have won/because of Christ our savior-king at last it will be done

I’m also impressed with the way Jeff’s music seems ready-made for worship events. These aren’t radio-songs that can be adapted for church purposes. They are songs written for live worship experiences that are adapted to an album format. Every chorus, every pre-chorus, every bridge feels faithfully assembled with an eye toward deployment of the key musical moments in a live worship experience, often with what I expect will be great results.

There are a few things I wish were different musically. In several instances, I would have preferred a more straightforward, consistent mix throughout the songs, rather than an effort to place some variation in the instrumentation. Also, the first pre-chorus in I Forever seems to just fall apart before the band reaches the smile-inducing, richly harmonic chorus. But those are minor complaints. Unveil may be the deepest, best-sounding effort from Jeff Deyo yet, and it will be an important component of my personal devotional life for many months to come.

You can listen to parts of the album here.

How (Not) to Speak of God: Inhabiting the God-Shaped Hole

May 19, 2007

Chapter 4 in Rollins’ book How (Not) to Speak of God addresses the implications of a/theology on the nature of the Christian walk and on our concepts of evangelism and missions.

Rollins begins the Chapter with a discussion of Christianity as religion. Is it a religion, he asks? In a sense, he concludes, no, it isn’t, becuase Jesus’ life was – in many ways – a critique of structured religious systems. Such systems, he told us, were not adequate to express what God really wants from us. In other words, religion, like theology must be seen as an inadequate response to God. We are (my term here) ir/religious people.

Next, Rollins discusses the nature of our desire for God. He notes that Pascal made reference to a “God-shaped hole” that each of us possess, which it was said is fulfilled in God. But Rollins turns this entire concept on its head:

The believer, far from once having a God-shaped hole in his or her being that is now filled, is one who has a God-shaped hole formed in the aftermath of God, a hole that compels us to seek after that which they already have.

The irony, then, is that those who desire and seek after God are the very ones that have him already – the hunger for God itself is what also nourishes us. (Here it is helpful to think about Jesus’ words in Matthew 7: if you ask, you get it; if you seek it, you find it; if you knock, its opened).

There is no difference, then, between a desire to be transformed, and the process of transformation itself. They both occur at the same time.

Rollins ends the chapter with a mind-bending idea that still makes me reel when I come back to it:

If we are truly desiring God, we should have no fear of honest dialog with people who are different from us (even non-Christians). If we believe our own individual convictions/conclusions about God are the complete (and only) explanation, then everything that is different threatens us, and we can never truly engage others in dialog. But if we doubt our own understanding and trust that God will reveal himself, we have nothing to fear.

God’s promise is that if we pursue him, we will find him. It is that simple. Again, Rollins says:

[I]f we genuinely seek truth from above, we will not be given a lie, for God does not give scorpions to the one who seeks bread.

Mission work (and evangelism), then, should not be seen as a holier-than-thou effort to bring the God that “we have” to people “out there,” but as dialog – a genuine effort to bring everyone, ourselves included, closer to God. “In serving the world,” he says, “we find God there.”

Previous Posts:
1. Introduction
2. The meaning of heretical orthodoxy
3. Chapter 1: God Rid me of God
4. Chapter 2: The Aftermath of Theology
5. Chapter 3: A/theology as Icon